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Guidelines for Evaluating Sources
To evaluate the general reliability of any source, whether a website or a library resource, start by asking the following questions. Then, once you have your answers, ask yourself whether the source is a good fit for your topic.
- What type of source is it? Different types of sources provide different kinds of information. For example,
- Is it a book/ebook? Or just a review of a book?
- Is it a scholarly journal article? Or a news or magazine article? Or a chapter from a book?
- Is it media – like a video or musical recording?
- Is it an entry from an encyclopedia?
- Is it a report, a dataset, or an infographic?
- Is it a presentation delivered at a conference?
Once you know what kind of source it is, you may be able to answer other important questions about the source.
- Who wrote it? Determining whether the person(s) or organization providing the information is qualified to make such an argument is helpful for judging the value of the information. Ask yourself
- Is the author an individual or group of individuals? An organization or committee?
- What are the author’s areas of expertise in relation to the topic?
- What are the author’s credentials? (Consider Googling the authors.)
- Could the author have any biases concerning the topic?
- Does the author write for a general or specialized reader?
- Where was it published? In order to get published, sources go through different processes of approval. Knowing the publishers and their approval process can be helpful to determine whether the information has been checked for accuracy and relevance by others. For example,
- Is it self-published, with minimal editing by anyone other than the author?
- Is it published by an academic publisher requiring a scholarly peer review process?
- Is it published by a magazine or newspaper to inform the general public?
- Is it a trade publication about a certain profession or industry?
- Is it published by an organization (business, non-profit, government agency) with purposes other than general education?
- Does the publisher also host irrelevant ads, sensational titles or images, or misleading clickbait?
- When was it published? The date when a source was created or updated can make a difference in how helpful it is for your own project.
- Can you find a publication date near the beginning, near the title or byline, or in a citation?
- Do you find multiple or unclear dates? Keep in mind that
- © symbols may apply to an entire website or publication, rather than to a particular source of information.
- Additional dates may indicate when updates were made.
- In online writing, reader comment dates should not be confused with the publication date.
- How recent should the information be to suit your topic?
- Why was this source published? Knowing the answers to the above questions may help you determine the reasons the source was published. These reasons may be at odds with your own purposes. Consider whether the source’s main purpose is to
- Present new knowledge to fellow scholars in a specialized field?
- Summarize and/or evaluate another work?
- Voice opinions for a certain viewpoint?
- Report conference presentations or work in progress?
- Give an introduction or overview of a complex topic?
- Advertise a product or service?
- Share conversations about practice between professionals?
- How is the information in the source supported? In order to be reliable, a source should usually provide relevant support for the arguments it contains. Otherwise, the information has no clear context which you can use to verify facts or trace meaningful dialog. Does the source
- Rely on other sources? Do they seem reputable?
- Quote witnesses or specialists in a field?
- Provide a list of references at the end? Or mention other sources in the text – sometimes with links, with online writing?
- Cite data, theories, facts, or accounts from other specialists in the field?
- Result from a rigorous editorial process like peer review?
- How will I use this source in my own project? No matter how reliable a source is, it must be relevant to your own project for you to use it. To determine relevance, think how you might employ the source. For example, might you use it to
- Provide helpful background for your own topic?
- Offer original data, text, or media which you will interpret in order to make your argument?
- Focus on an argument which you will refute or qualify?
- Explain a theory or method which influences your own approach?
- Borrow quotes, media, or statistics likely to inspire your audience?